Alaska politicians, lobbyists and aides have a band called ‘Spank the Dog

Around this time of year, Juneau is known for the bustle of the legislative session — the committee hearings, the press conferences, and the many, many floor speeches. But after hours, some members of the capital gang can be found making noise of a different variety.

Spank the Dog has one last night before their big show, and the guitarists are working out twangy covers of Beatles songs. They’re crammed in a slightly dingy downtown office, furnished with an old couch and a TV playing the public affairs station on mute. It’s no garage, but it’ll do.

Spank the Dog is a pick-up band, and it’s been a while since this specific group of guys played together. Because they have an ever-changing roster, it’s worth running through the current lineup.

“John Bitney, guitar.”

“Paul Fuhs, vocals and guitar”

“Dan Saddler, bass and sometimes I sing.”

“Teneeka Hansen, vocals.”

And their day jobs?

“We’re professional politicians.” [laughter] “No, I’m a lobbyist.” “I’m an amateur politician.” “I’m a legislative aide.”

Not at rehearsal: Sen. Pete Kelly on drums, and University of Alaska President Pat Gamble, another guitarist.

Spank the Dog has been a consistently intermittent fixture of Juneau’s music scene for more than a dozen years. As the legislature changes, so does the band.

Bitney is one of the anchor members, and he says Spank the Dog has sort of an open-door policy toward anyone affiliated with the legislature.

“This is our mental health program for session,” Bitney says.

He can’t count the number of people who have played with them over the years. When it comes to drummers, it’s basically a revolving door.

“We found the movie Spinal Tap is true — they come, they go, they die, they go to jail, whatever the case may be. We’ve probably been through about 30 different iterations, I’d say,” Bitney says.

But for all of the legislators, and lobbyists, and staffers who have played with the band, Spank the Dog is decidedly unpolitical. They mostly stick to covering classic rock, and when they play, their turnout is bipartisan.

Pete Kelly, a Republican, says he even earned a fan in Ethan Berkowitz, who led the House Democrats for years:

 “He walks in, and this is again right after I had left the legislature and I was working for the university, so Ethan and I had been working as opposing legislators for quite a while. He walks in, and we’re playing Pink Floyd or something like that. And he says, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m so conflicted. Pete Kelly is up there playing our music!’”

The night of Spank the Dog’s recent performance, the Hangar Ballroom is packed. The show is a benefit for a Wounded Warriors program at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, and it seems like half the people who work in the capitol building are there.

For Pat Gamble — university president, guitarist, and retired Air Force general — this is somewhat intimidating.

“First time playing with a band in over 40 years. So, I’m a little nervous,” Gamble says.

He’s got a receptive audience, though. At least a few people made an effort to change out of their work clothes, and even Senate President Charlie Huggins is ready to let loose:

“I’m ready to rock! Let’s see you, let’s see your version! There we go!”

By the time they’re a couple of songs in, the band looks as relaxed as their Hawaiian shirts would suggest. People start dancing, and everyone seems to be having a good time. When the band takes a break for the fundraising part of the night, most people stick around. They raise $25,000. It’s almost enough to make you forget you’re in the thick of Alaska’s political frenzy.

Even bassist Dan Saddler feels that way.

“I’m just Dan here. I’m just a bass player. I’m not Rep. Saddler. And I like it that way,” Saddler says.

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